Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Not Too Much, Just Too Soon

I have been thinking about pacing lately. Pacing is the rate at which you allow things to happen in your narrative, the speed at which you show things to your reader. The book I'm writing now is much more character-driven than my past books, which have all been heavy on character but also have tight, forward-moving plots to provide the basic structure. The new book? I have no idea what the plot is. I'm making it up as I go along and for the first time since my first (miserable failure) novel, I'm writing without an outline. So all I have is revelation of character, really. I'm learning that pacing is much more important (and harder to do) in a basically character piece than it is in a basically plot piece.

Here's an example of the difference:

In a plot-oriented story, you can open with a guy going to the office and thinking about how today is his 10-year anniversary. He needs to remember to buy a card and flowers for his wife before he meets her for dinner after work. He goes into his office, turns on his computer and suddenly there is a massive explosion down the hall as a bomb in the mail room goes off. No warning has been given at all to the reader that something like this was going to happen. And that's perfectly acceptable and you can do all of this in 500 words of prose (or fewer) and nobody will have any problem with the pacing.

In a character-oriented story, if you open with a guy going to the office and thinking about how today is his 10-year anniversary and how he needs to remember to buy a card and flowers for his wife before he meets her for dinner after work and then he goes into his office, picks up the phone and starts hurling violently angry and obscene abuse at someone, you might have a problem with pacing. Going from an essentially neutral tone to a needle-in-the-red moment like that is probably going to be disorienting and not really the effect you want to have on the reader. What the hell kind of story am I reading? your reader will wonder, and their faith in you as a craftsman and worthy storyteller will be shaken.

I think that big dynamic changes in plot can come with little preparation, but big dynamic changes in character have to be achieved more gradually. In the bomb example above, you don't need to insert into the scene an image of the bomber putting together the explosives and mailing them. But in the phone call example, you need to insert into the scene something to cue the reader that the guy is in a heightened emotional state. Maybe he grumbles about the weather on the way in. Maybe he says something a bit sharp to a coworker he passes in the hall. I don't know. But there should be something. Possibly you skip the bit about the anniversary or move it back to after the violent phone call, but the overall effect will be different then, and if the context of the first chapter is the impending anniversary dinner, you weaken that.

What I'm getting at is the idea that if you come across a passage in your work that seems to come out of nowhere, you probably don't need to rewrite that passage. You probably need to rewrite the passages that lead up to the awkward bit, adding in cues and foreshadowing. Your awkward passage is probably not too much, just too soon. So delay it a bit by preparing for it earlier on.

This is a lousy post because I'm just sort of thinking through some of my current storytelling problems out loud (so to speak, so to speak). I'll do better in the future, I promise.


  1. This is quite a confused post as I'm not relaly sure what issues you're having in your writing, but from the examples you give i'd say you're missing something.

    The difference between the bombing and the shouting examples aren't to do with pacing or character vs plot, in one an external event is casuing a reaction in the MC, in the other it's the MC's actions that have no clear motivation.

    If you had the MC walk into the office thinking about flowrs etc, and then for no reason he blew himslef up you'd have the same problem as the character piece. Out of the blue random plot development.

    Unless you're dealing with Hllowood extrmemes of action movie or character stuff, story isn't all that different whatever it's about. Plot reveals character. Character provides motivation for plot.

    If a man is thinking about his anniversary, takes a phone call, the voice on the other end of the line is his ex-wife who wants money and he loses his temper, makes perfect sense.

    Moody Writing

  2. It's funny how the very mention of *ex-wife* can change one's mood...thanks Mood! :) (...which makes a sudden mood change, along with a well-placed explosive charge, very believable.)

    I'm having a problem with pacing in my current book. I'm winging it without an outline (as mentioned elsewhere), and I'm finding it slow-moving where it shouldn't be. I'm not sweating it as it's only a first draft and the story will eventually contain many exciting bits too. I'm writing it out of order. (as opposed to out-of-order!)

  3. It seems to me that what you're saying has to do with the intractability of people. Events can happen randomly, suddenly, without warning. Throw them at a reader and she'll say, "sure," and, "what's next."

    But people tend not to change or veer off course without sufficient provocation or suffering or enlightenment or whatever. So if it's sudden or dramatic, we won't believe it. We need the why or at least a hint of it.

    Of course, it's entirely possible I've no idea what you're saying. It's been a horrible day of synopsis wrangling, and I can't pretend that I harbor much in the way of concentration at this moment.

    Off point: Are you on twitter? And if so, do you follow The Paris Review? They tweeted the following and for some reason it reminded me of you:

    "I’ve always said that my ideal reader would be someone who after finishing one of my novels would throw it out the window. – Harry Mathews"

  4. "The difference between the bombing and the shouting examples aren't to do with pacing or character vs plot, in one an external event is casuing a reaction in the MC, in the other it's the MC's actions that have no clear motivation."

    That's what I said. Pacing and character motivation are two sides of the same coin. My point is that you can't just drop in a change in character dynamic without preparing it. Which has to do with the pace of exposition.

    "Plot reveals character. Character provides motivation for plot."

    Sometimes that's true. Sometimes it's not.

  5. Charlie: I'm writing out of order, too. I have no idea how people do it. I have no idea how people write out of order or without an outline and edit as they go. How can you edit when you don't know what you've got?

    j a: I don't twitter. But I like the Mathews quote.

    Possibly my real point with this post is that if an emotionally-charged moment seems unrealistic, it's coming too soon in the narrative. You need to build up to it more effectively, rather than rewriting the scene in question.

  6. I'm working on this exact problem right now. On the bus this morning, I started my first outline for Cyberlama to get the story more organized in my head. There were two story threads that I had gone into in the second half of the book that hadn't occurred to me in the first half, so now I'm finding places where I can insert some scenes that will make those storylines feel more organic.

  7. mooderino: Let's replace the action of the character (violent cursing, etc) with something else. Let's replace it with a revelation about the character. Let's say that we have the first paragraph about the anniversary and then we have--oh, I don't know--a longer paragraph where the guy sits down at his desk and somehow we learn that he fantasizes about cutting up little children and boiling them in pots. Suppose you don't want that to be a major, disorienting reveal. You want the narrative to sort of build there so that when the reader arrives at the passage it's surprising but not jarring. That is a problem of pacing and exposition, not of motivation.

  8. Davin: In a couple of weeks I'll start revising the philosophical detective story and I know that I'll be doing a bunch of work in the first part of the story to address things I made happen in the second part of the story. Except that I'll be adding stuff to the first half to make what happens in the second half seem more surprising rather than less. Which is just weird.

  9. I totally understand. Getting the emotions to track between scenes is something I have trouble with occasionally. Emotions don't exist in vacuums, so you need to build up to them properly and come down from them properly.

  10. "Let's replace it with a revelation about the character."

    The reason it doesn't feel right still isn't pacing (and just saying pacing and motivation is the same doesn't make it so). If you just have someone reveal some key element by thinking about it on a whim it's going to feel contrived and forced (no matter what pace you do it at).

    Based on the examples you've given (which may or may not pertinent to your actual story, you haven't made it clear) I'd say the problem is one of narrative structure, not pacing (and no, they aren't the same thing).

    In the example you gave, if you revealed the man's 'character' through action instead of randomly having him think about it for no reason I think you'll find your 'pacing' issues will disappear.

    Whether it's character driven or plot driven, having stuff revealed by people daydreaming about them will always feel slowly paced.

    Good luck.

  11. mood: Clearly you and I have different ideas about how narratives function. But this post was not my way of soliciting your advice, well-meaning as it may have been.

  12. I should let this go, but these are just too much:

    "In the example you gave, if you revealed the man's 'character' through action instead of randomly having him think about it for no reason I think you'll find your 'pacing' issues will disappear.

    Whether it's character driven or plot driven, having stuff revealed by people daydreaming about them will always feel slowly paced"

    Have you read Woolf? Have you read Joyce? Have you read Beckett? Have you read Absolom, Absolom? Your advice is all very nice Writing 101 stuff, but it reduces rather than explains actual literature.

  13. It's hard to know whether you want me to respond or not.

    I have read the authors you mention, but I can only go on the actual examples you gave in your post/comment.

    In those examples what I say holds true, I would say.

    The writers you mention are often thought of as slow paced but they don't get round it somehow, people accept them as they are becasue what's being written about holds their interest. They don't find ways to speed things up.

    This is just my opinion of course, and I'll happily not express them if you prefer, but it's hard to know what exactly you are soliciting. Not a mind reader but I do mean well.

    Moody Writing

  14. Okay, I'll be as straightforward as I can be. I am not soliciting anything. I am filling column inches. I woke up and thought about how I hadn't blogged this week and thought I should. I am no longer interested in writing posts about how we should (for example) show, not tell because a)that's been done to death and b)I don't think it's good advice because it's not a true reflection of mature fiction. So I had to find something else to blog about.

    I am working on a new novel. Last night I read through the first pages of it and I realized that I have a big revelation about the main character come about 500 words in, and that revelation struck me as jarring. It comes in the form of the character thinking. That is not the problem with it. Having him act on those thoughts (which I won't put into this post because Mighty Reader doesn't like it when I spoil her reading) would be out of character. It is important for them to be internal, and thoughts, not external actions. These sorts of thoughts are part of his character and in this case, thought is action. Anyway, I realized that I could make the movement of the narrative from the idea of his anniversary to these secret thoughts smoother (because I have a certain sense of balance and flow that I desire in my narratives which is entirely subjective and not up for discussion) by inserting some preperatory materials before the passage where we see his thoughts.

    I don't see stories as being a bunch of separate parts. I don't think in terms of "character" or "plot" or "voice" so much. I see a single object that I call a "narrative." Which is a usage with a solid history. I don't believe you can talk meaningfully at any depth of pacing without also referring to character, for example. I especially don't think you can discuss exposition in any useful way without thinking about the pace at which the materials enter the narrative. Where and when you give information to the reader is certainly an issue of pacing, and of rhythm, and of mood and texture as well.

    That some folks might call Faulkner or Joyce or whomever "slow" is really not the point. This post was never about "speeding things up." But the speed of the reader through the narrative is not "pace" as I think of it. "Ulysses" is a dense book but the density of the prose is a separate issue from the pace of the narrative. The second half of "Molloy" is a breezy read but it's not exactly fast-paced.

    Mostly, and this won't cast me in a nice light but really who cares, your first paragraph in your first comment is condescending and patronizing and everything you said after that annoyed me because of the condescension. Like I say, I don't blog to get advice. I like to talk about writing, not to have someone tell me that "action equals character" or whatever rudimentary advice they have to hand about plot revealing character.

  15. I think everything you just said is fair enough. Not that I was intentionally trying to be patronising, but your approach to writing is perfectly reasonable and I can see the issue you're having.

    I could offer you my thoughts on how to approach it, but clearly that's not what you're after, so I won't.

    But to give a brother a break, the rudimentary advice I gave was based on the rudimentary, not very Joycean, examples you gave. And the contrast you drew between how pacing works in plot-driven vs character-driven is in the language of Writing 101 so that's how I responded.

    I apologise if I got on your nerves, but I'm not sure I deserve quite the grumpiness-level you were doling out here.

    Feel free to visit my blog and condescend to me. My latest post is on Faulkner, by coincidence.

    Moody Writing

  16. mood: I also can't rule out the possibility that some days I'm just a cranky old jerk. It's true; ask anyone.


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